Friday, 13 March 2009

Dead Babies by Martin Amis

I picked this up at the library because I realised I’ve never read any Martin Amis and that perhaps I should have done. And I’m not all together sure what I thought about it. The basic premise is that nine twenty-somethings get together in a house in the English countryside, Appleseed Rectory, for a weekend of drink, drugs and debauchery. And for the faint hearted, it does go into graphic detail on the debauchery aspects. There are no dead babies though. That is a dismissive comment used by the characters when they consider something to be irrelevant to current life.

“All that camp and unisex crap, said Andy dead babies now. When I was a kid they were doing all that.”

All the characters appear to be independently wealthy, and all somewhat reprehensible. But Amis takes the whole book to fill us in on their backgrounds and full character traits, and even then only one of them is a fully fleshed out character. This is Keith Whitehead, and the initial description of him is worth reading, if only for the repulsiveness that comes across in this short passage.

“Whitehead is an almost preposterously unattractive young man- practically, for instance a dwarf. Whenever people want to say something nice about his appearance they usually come up with ‘you’ve got quite nice colouring’, a reference to his dark eyebrows and thin yellow hair. That granted, nothing remained to be praised about his unappetizing person- the sparse straw mat atop a squashed and petulant mask of acne; the dour, bulgy little torso and repulsively truncated limbs; the numb, cadaverous texture of the whole."

This is such a brilliant way of saying he’s short, fat and ugly! The other characters are less filled in, but we have background information on all of them and do finally get to know why they behave as they do. There’s violent, unsatisfied Andy and his girlfriend Diana, charming, respectable Quentin and his wife, Celia, permanently drunk Giles and his obsession with his teeth, the three visiting Americans who regularly have threesomes and Lucy Littlejohn, Andy’s ex-girlfriend/whore.

During their weekend they are permanently under the influence of some sort of substance and although the talk is constantly of sex, not a lot of it seems to actually happen, due to effects called street sadness, false memory and other such pretentious sounding ‘ailments’. They have a picnic, clobber a cow, visit some strange avant garde theatre and have various discussions about modern society and its failings, which usually comes down to sex or violence. And some bloke called Johnny keeps playing unpleasant practical jokes on them all.

As I said at the start I’m not sure what I thought about this. I don’t think I even understood it properly. I think it might have supposed to have been a satire on upper class society in the 60’s/70’s, but I’ll stand corrected on that. I did enjoy it though, even if I didn’t quite get it! It was actually funny in places, and the conversations between the characters were brilliantly written. It is definitely a novel of dialogue. I also really liked the fact that the author was frequently popping up and commenting on the story himself.

“Enough? Have we had enough? Nothing would be easier of course than to give the Americans some food, some sleep even and pack them off....unfortunately there is no going back on things that in a sense were never meant, things that got started too long ago. These things go on. It isn’t over. It hasn’t begun.”

And the ending is brilliant. It involves Johnny, of course, but it sneaks up on you and even once you’ve read it, and then read it again, you can’t quite believe that it has actually happened.


Sharon said...

Good review, thanks. The title would have put me off, glad to hear there are actually no dead babies!

Savidge Reads said...

Great review, I have never tried another Martin Amis after half reading London Fields which is despised, horrid characters, horrid plot... just horrid. Have been told that this, The Rachel Papers and Success are all much much better and it sounds like you enjoyed this one.

Jo said...

Sharon, no, no dead babies. I think if their were I'd have put it down immediately!

Simon, I was told that too. I've got The Rachel Papers to read when I read another one! Times Arrow intrigues me aswell.